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Gwinnett University Center's Watts: It will not be easy to leave

Since July 2002, Rob Watts has been the go-to guy for Gwinnett University Center as the interim director. He was only supposed to fill in until they found a new director, but instead, Watts helped shape a new direction for the university center - turning into a four-year college.

Watts will turn over his leadership power Wednesday when the board names the first president of the yet-to-be named state college. But he's got plenty to keep him busy - this July he was named interim president of Georgia Perimeter College until a new top dog is appointed next year.

Gwinnett Daily Post: Seems like you are in the interim role at a lot of schools. Is it your niche? How did you get on board with that?

Rob Watts: The former chancellor asked me to be interim president of Floyd College back five or six years ago, and then he asked me again at Middle Georgia College, and then the current chancellor (Thomas Meredith) asked me both for the Gwinnett University Center and for this position (at Georgia Perimeter College).

I hope that's not a niche. That's probably a fatal niche, but I've enjoyed doing that. I've gotten to see different parts of Georgia.

GDP: When did you first enter the administrative side of the collegiate world?

RW: I was working on staff at the (Georgia) state legislature in the Legislative budget office. In 1986, there was an opening here at Georgia Perimeter, and I came right after they joined the state university system. Before that, they were a part of the DeKalb County Board of Education. They were DeKalb College.

GDP: What made you decide to get into administration?

RW: The thought of being back on a college campus was very nice after a few years of being at the state Capitol, where I learned a lot. It's a great place to work for a young person starting out. But I was ready to be back on a college campus. Growing up in a college town, I was always oriented to a campus environment.

Colleges attract very interesting people - very bright people, odd people, opinionated people, people who work very hard, who have good insights. And interesting people attract interesting students. It is an environment where you work with - and run into - not-run-of-the-mill folks. There is a professor here who has two doctorates, including one from MIT, and that's not the norm. This is such a fine faculty. Atlanta is a great draw. People want to come here to work.

GDP: What lessons do you feel like the Gwinnett University Center will have to learn from watching DeKalb College?

RW: The Gwinnett school system is a wonderful school system. Gwinnett is so fortunate to have not only a superior K-12 system, but to have the Cadillac technical college in the state and soon to be - what we all hope to be - a model four-year college as well. To have all three elements of an education system will be a tremendous economic development tool.

GDP: Why do you think it will be an attractive alternative versus Georgia or Georgia Tech?

RW: Not everyone has a 1,300 SAT. Gwinnett residents make up the largest proportion of students at the University of Georgia. But with this enormous school system, there are more than just the students who can go on to the University of Georgia or Georgia Tech or Georgia State. There are some very well-prepared college students who need other alternatives.

GDP: What kind of brand do you envision this new university having? How do you get kids to want to come there and feel confident that when they get their degree, it is worth something?

RW: Right from the start the programs have to be high-quality, excellent programs. We are planning to start the limited number of baccalaureate programs, because you can't start all at once. We're talking four to six.

It will take time. Think of all the premier colleges in the country - it's no accident they are all old. They go back to the 1630s. It takes time to build that reputation. But if it's started right, with the right leadership, with right faculty and the right instructional model, it will be very competitive very fast, and compete for these students.

GDP: Seems like you guys are trying to make college reachable for a vast number of people.

RW: Absolutely. The future of a place like Gwinnett depends on opening the doors of higher education, not shutting them off and making an elite institution. This needs to be a place that is open to lots of Gwinnett people - both traditional students and also nontraditional students who are returning to college who want to go at night and on Saturdays. There are a large number of people nationally, and a large number of adults in Gwinnett, who do not have a college degree. This will be a place were those students could go on a part-time basis at night and continue to raise families or work and achieve that dream of a college degree.

GDP: What kind of dialogue are you having with the students at the university center?

RW: Their administrations are communicating with them. There is going to be a three-year transition period, so the University of Georgia and Georgia Perimeter College will be out there for the next three years to help their students get their degrees from their home institutions, while this new college starts to ramp up.

Slowly, over those three years, those existing colleges will cease accepting students and will just deal with continuing students, and three years from now the existing colleges will not be at the center anymore, and the new college will offer all of the undergraduate programs. The University of Georgia is going to continue with the graduate programs.

GDP: Are you sad to leave Gwinnett?

RW: I have learned a lot in the past three years, and I have made a lot of friends in the Gwinnett community and certainly have professional colleagues who work there, and it will not be easy to leave them, and I have an investment in seeing how this college becomes a new model in this century.

This college has the chance to be a different model. Highly focused on instruction, blending in-class, face-to-face learning with hybrid learning, with the most modern of instructional technologies and trying hard to run a very lean support operation and a very lean administration so you don't wind up replicating everything that exists across the country. The state has a wonderful chance, and Gwinnett will be a wonderful laboratory for that model.

Not so many universities are created in this country. The last new college was created in Georgia 35 years ago. Mostly if you are president, you are a president and you can massage around the margins. This institution is starting from scratch. It's building its curriculum right from scratch. Not retrofitting, but to have it oriented from the first day to meet the local work force development needs.